I might be jumping too far into the future here and being very optimistic but I do think United will qualify for the Champions League 2015/16, even if only as the 4th placed team in England.
The reason it’s in my head is because I’m worried about how prepared we are to be in that position again. Until this season, it was completely unimaginable that the Champions League would not feature Manchester United.
Obviously, the best four teams over the course of a season finish in the top four places and go on to the Champions League group stage draw/playoffs, but how much further are they going to go.
Manchester City have again drawn the short straw and been given the Group of Death, likely due to their poor results and unfamiliarity with European competition keeping them outside of the top seeded pot for the draw. City, a team who embarrassed United on two occasions last year, have started their campaign more promisingly than their near neighbours again this year.
Arsenal, who are forever consigned to fourth place unless Welbeck/Ozil and company can finally click and push them into a proper title challenge, were made to look like an average team by the second ranked team in Germany who persistently get stripped of their prized possessions every summer.
Chelsea, who look the complete package thanks to the additions of Courtois, Fabregas and Diego Costa, were still held at home by Schalke in their opening game. They should still comfortably qualify from the group as should Arsenal.
Liverpool are out of their depth. Another team who took advantage of United’s dismal season by getting a 3-0 win at Old Trafford to completely deplete United fans. They edged their way past Ludogorets Razgrad (a Bulgarian side who were founded in just 2001) before being beaten in Basel in Switzerland. Add to that the two upcoming ties against Real Madrid and you have a tough group to get out of. That group should have been a routine qualification for a top four English side.
Chelsea and Arsenal, as mentioned, should still qualify, particularly after having wins in their second group games during this week but Man City have 1 point from two games and still have to go away to AS Roma and CSKA Moscow while Liverpool will need unlikely wins against holders Real Madrid.
Now that I’ve that out of the way, I can talk about why that worries me.
Last Season, Arsenal (1-0, 0-0), Chelsea (0-0, 1-3), Liverpool (0-1, 0-3) and Man City (1-4, 0-3) proved to be too strong for United. That was a United side coming off the high of winning a Premier League just months before.
If those teams, who are ‘better’ than United, can struggle so transparently in European competition, how hard will it be for our side to make that transition back into the tournament.
10 players currently sit on the United injury list and players like Paddy McNair, Tom Thorpe, Tyler Blackett and Jesse Lingard are being thrown into the first team. It’s always good to see younger players coming through but it’s nicer to see them being blooded into a winning team with a winning mentality.
If United had qualified for Europe this season, how long would the injury list be now? I don’t think there would be enough players available to fill out the 25 man squad that has to be submitted prior to each stage of the Champions League/Europa League.
The squad isn’t there to deal with European Football. Key players that were used in the group stage games against European ‘minnows’, more often than not teams from Eastern Europe or Scandinavia, have now been moved out to accommodate the new signings. Danny Welbeck is the obvious name that stands out. He was the go-to man for the big European nights as evident from his performances against Real Madrid (2012/13) and Bayern Munich (2013/14). He’s not alone however as Shinji Kagawa, Javier Hernandez (loan), Nani (loan) and Tom Cleverley are all now gone and those loan deals will be made permanent in the summer.
Unless Van Gaal has a major change of heart and wants to keep these players that he tried so hard to get rid of, it looks like we may need another big in-surge of players either in January or next summer. Marquee signings are great for jersey sales and filling seats but squads are made by people who are willing to do their job when called upon.
Players like Nemanja Vidic, Patrice Evra and Michael Carrick were not signed on the same scale as Angel Di Maria, Juan Mata etc but have written their names into the history of the club. Hopefully, it isn’t a case of buying all around and we can see more of McNair and Blackett, along with a role for Januzaj and a top four finish in May.